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Hebrews 9:1-4 & Leviticus 16:14-18 by Robert Dean
Series:Hebrews (2005)
Duration:58 mins 50 secs

Hebrews Lesson 141    December 5, 2008


NKJ John 17:17 "Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.


We are in Hebrews 9. Now what's important about Hebrews 9 is to understand where the chapter is going, and where this chapter is going is a discussion of the complete work of Christ on the cross and how that was depicted in the Old Testament on the Day of Atonement in the Tabernacle ritual; not things as they later happened in the Temple (either the Solomonic Temple or the Second Temple), but the Day of Atonement under the original Tabernacle regulations as outlined in Leviticus. 


So if you look down to Hebrews 9:28 we read:


NKJ Hebrews 9:28 so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.


So the focal point here is that He was offered once for sin. So that is where we're going in unpacking the implications of that in terms of our future destiny.  See that verse ties them both together: the First Advent sacrifice and the Second Coming which is the completion of salvation; what we call not just glorification because this isn't talking about the rapture, it's talking about when Christ comes to establish His kingdom. That's where we should be looking in terms of our own spiritual life, recognizing that we are in training today for that future position to rule and reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. 


What the writer of Hebrews is doing in chapter 9 is unpacking all of the implications or many of the implications that come out of the Old Testament ritual, specifically on the Day of Atonement. So that's what we have to keep in mind. Keep that focus on. This is related to the ritual of the Day of Atonement as described in Leviticus because when we understand that, it's going to help solve of these other problems. 


Now after class last time, it was apparent even on the video that the pulpit was stormed. There were at least 5 or 6 people coming up here with all kinds of questions; not necessarily people saying, "I don't agree". 


But some were coming up and they were saying, "Well, what about this verse or that verse? This makes sense. That makes sense." 


Then over the next couple of days I heard from several people who said, "Okay, all my circuits got blown. You went through that so fast. Can you cover it again?"


Let's go back over it, slow down a little bit and let's make sure we really have this. So there's going to be a lot of repetition tonight. I haven't changed my view since this last time, but I have enhanced it. I've further discovered a couple of statements that I made last time that weren't quite correct; so we're going to have a couple of corrections this time and just honing in on the basic issues related to the location of the altar of incense. That's an issue that is related to the inerrancy and infallibility of the text, the trustworthiness of the text. But I think it also is going to have an impact on the typology that we have on the Day of Atonement in relationship to understanding this connection between the altar of incense and the mercy seat. So we might get to that point this time. 


Just to remind you, we're in Hebrews 9:1-4. Let's look at the passages, and then I'll go over the problem again.


The apostle begins (the writer begins) by saying: 


NKJ Hebrews 9:1 Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary.


NKJ Hebrews 9:2 For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary;


Now one question that was posed to me is why does the writer mention it this way because the table and the bread are really two separate things. But what we have is a sense of 3's many times in the Tabernacle and here he maintains the 3's by talking about the table and the showbread separately, which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread. This is called the holy place, literally the holies. 


Then verse 3 says:


NKJ Hebrews 9:3 and behind the second veil,


That's where we get into a problem.


the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All,


NKJ Hebrews 9:4 which had


There we have a participial form of the verb of to have or to hold indicating what is there. You can't go into the language of that participle and say, "Well, there's some unusual nuance there that means it's really some place else." 


You trace through this and I've done this. I've have traced through the use of this verb echo in Hebrews and when it's used in the participial form it indicates that something is there. 


So, it is saying: 


the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant;


NKJ Hebrews 9:5 and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.


Now where the author is going to go from here has to do with the Day of Atonement, but it raises the question because all of us have seen these pictures and schema plans of the Tabernacle that look something like this. You have the Tabernacle proper even though in Hebrews here it refers to both of these as tabernacles or dwelling places. You have the division of the inner sanctum, which is called the Holy of Holies there to your left and on the right the holy place. On entry you would be coming in from the right side, which is from the east. You would come into the holy place. On your left is the menorah; on your right is the table of showbread. You would then have the golden altar up next to the veil, which is depicted by the purple line dividing the two rooms.  Then you have the Holy of Holies with one piece of furniture in there: the Ark of the Covenant. Now that's the way we've always looked at this. 


But if you're standing outside in the holy place (which you have to be when you use the term "behind the veil is the Ark of the Covenant")…so you're on the other side of the veil. The writer of Hebrews is writing from this perspective where he says "behind the second veil". The first veil is the outer curtain, the entryway into the holy place. Behind the veil (the inner veil) having (is the holy place) in its possession within the room (the typical normal use of that language)…you have the golden altar of incense and the Ark of the Covenant. So that doesn't fit this depiction. 


It would fit though this depiction: in this floor plan I've moved the altar inside the veil so that it is directly in front of the Ark of the Covenant. I think that's how it was in the Tabernacle and also in the Temple (in Solomon's Temple.) 


Now this raises a number of questions that people have had over the years. This is considered one of the big problem passages, trying to solve this problem in Hebrews.


There are four solutions that are offered when you read the literature and I've read a lot more and had discussions with several people. The first solution (which is one we automatically reject, but we have to state it because that's one that you find among liberals) is the writer of Hebrews just made a mistake. So there are those who say he was an Alexandrian Jew or he was a Jew in the diaspora somewhere else and he wasn't familiar with the layout in the Temple. This is really an absurd solution. I think last time I mentioned Franz Delitzsch and his commentary on Hebrews. He actually quotes somebody much earlier, an 18th century writer who says this guy has to be abysmally ignorant to think that he made that kind of mistake. No Jew who knows anything about the Tabernacle or the Temple would make such a mistake as to put the altar of incense inside the Holy of Holies. So he just can't be making that kind of mistake.


But we would reject it on the grounds of inerrancy and infallibility: that the writers of Scripture don't make mistakes because the Spirit of God superintended the writers of Scripture so that He made sure that what they wrote was guaranteed to be free from error. There is no textual problem or anything like this. 


Some people have said, "Well, what about the preposition behind the veil?" 


Meta is the preposition. You just don't have any wiggle room there. It's used in a locative sense indicating behind or after or on the other side of. So we really can't figure out some sort of alternative there that's hidden in some cryptic use of the Greek.


The second solution that's offered, and this is one that will come out of the King James Version. A lot of people who spent their years (early years) just reading the English text of the King James because in the King James you won't find "altar" used there in verse 4, you'll find the word censer. In the King James Version it will say that the Holy of Holies (and New King James as well) "holds the golden censer and the Ark of the Covenant."


So they would say this isn't talking about having the altar of incense behind the veil. This is just the golden censer that the High Priest would carry with him into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. 


But there is a problem with that because the writer of Hebrews (if we look at just the description going back to the earlier verses) says:


NKJ Hebrews 9:2 For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary;


He's not talking functionally here. Neither is he talking about the way it was only on the Day of Atonement. If we are going to take the solution that it's the golden censer you'd have to say this is talking only about that time when the High Priest was taking the censer inside the Holy of Holies. That just doesn't work because the way the writer is writing is he's just describing the normal status of the Tabernacle. 


NKJ Hebrews 9:3 and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All,


NKJ Hebrews 9:4 which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant;


So he's writing descriptively about what is normally there in each of these rooms, their normal furnishings. It's not until he gets down to verse 6 that he begins to talk about function or operation. He's simply being descriptive there. So that's one problem with understanding the altar to be the golden censer.


Another problem has to do with the word here. The word that is used in the Greek isn't the normal word that is used for an altar. It is a different word. It is the word thumiaterion.


Now there's debate over this (the meaning of the word) because the core meaning of thumiaterion has any vessel that is used to carry incense or that has anything to do with the burning of incense. So it could refer to a censer, but it can also refer to the altar itself. It's a more generic term. 


In fact you can look at various ancient translations whether it's the Syriac Pisheto or the Vulgate and they take this to refer to a censer as the King James and New King James take it. There are other ancient translations and commentators who take it as the altar of incense. It could go either way because the word itself is not that technical. That's part of the issue here. So when we look at this second option, the altar is a censer based on the word used. We recognize that in the Septuagint the full use of the word was thusiasterion thumiamatas. Now the second word thumiamatas is where we get the word thumiaterion.Thumiaterion comes into usage during the intertestamental period. Now this is where it gets kind of technical and to make it simple, in the Septuagint which was translated during the intertestamental period, the usage is different from general Hellenistic usage of the word. There are several writers who build out the case for that so that those who were writing strictly within the Scripture…for example, thumiaterion is used in a couple of passages, in 2 Chronicles 26:19 and Ezekiel 8:11 to refer to the golden altar. But when you get into extra-biblical literature (outside of the canon for example in Philo and Josephus), they're not as picky about the meaning of thumiaterion and there it's used as a synonym for the altar. 


So there's clear evidence that the word that's used here that's translated "altar" and in some versions "censer" could go either way. There is clear evidence from Josephus, from Philo who were 1st century writers. Philo was a Jew who lived in Alexandria in northern Egypt. Josephus was a priest. He was from a priestly family. He was a general in the Jewish army at the time of the revolt against Rome. He got captured and he turned sides – sort of a Benedict Arnold, many Jews would say. But, he was very well educated. He wrote a history of the Jews. He was sort of patronized by the Flavian Caesars and by Titus who took care of him and financed his operations when he went back to Rome after the rebellions. He wrote the History of the Wars of the Jews, The History of the Jews. So we rely a lot upon Josephus for 1st century information. He doesn't live at the same time as Christ. He's a little bit younger so he isn't born until about 40. But he's in his 30's during the time of the wars of the rebellion. So we look to Josephus for a lot of word usage ideas that come from that particular period of time.


Also in the early church you have Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century as well as Origen in the late 2nd, early 3rd century who also used the wordthumiaterion to refer to the altar of incense. 


The point is that the word can mean either censer or altar of incense. The problem isn't with the word; it's with that adjective, golden. When you look at the descriptions in the Tabernacle, the only golden censer is one that's associated with the menorah, with the lamp. There's no golden censer that's associated with the bronze altar or with the altar of incense. It was a bronze censer. So once again if you call this a censer, then you've got a problem. You're either going to have to argue (as some do) for later usage because there was a gold censer that was used in the Herodian Temple. But there's no gold censer used back in the Tabernacle period, and that's the period that is being described and focused on in this particular passage. 


Another thing that comes up in terms of understanding this issue is that in the Pentateuch there's no use of this golden censer. The term which I just mentioned (the term that is used in the later Second Temple period) is the term kph which refers to a golden censer used in the Herodian period. The term for censer that's used in the Tabernacle in Leviticus (for example in Leviticus 16:12) is the Hebrew word machtah. So you don't have a word at all that is associated with a golden censer.


Another part of this argument is that the Septuagint used the word purion. Now pur is the word for fire. So purion was like a fire pan as it's translated in some versions or a censer. That's the Greek word that's used in the Septuagint of the Pentateuch. The purion is always of bronze and is not of gold. 


So the first problem that we have with this being a censer is that the author of Hebrews is writing and describing what's in each room as a standard fixture and not just what is happening during the event of the Day of Atonement. 


The second problem (the one that I just pointed out) has to do with all the language issues: that the term here just can't be limited to censer. The fact that it's golden, the golden censer solution just doesn't work. I was going to say it doesn't hold water, but it doesn't hold fire either. It just doesn't work. 


A third problem for this word is that the context of Hebrews 9 is talking about the Tabernacle, talking about the service in the Tabernacle, not later on. One of the things I kept saying when I would read people – for example someone brought up Edersheim. Some of you may have seen Alfred Edersheim's famous work, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (a big thick book), an excellent resource. But he has another book on the Temple, on the priesthood and its ministry and services. But it's all about the Second Temple period. It's not about Solomon or it's not about Exodus. It's about primarily what's going on in the Second Temple period. 


What I'm saying is we have to be careful not to read Second Temple descriptions back into First Temple activities or Tabernacle activities because there were some notable differences. 


One of those notable differences is that:


  1. There was a veil in the Tabernacle that separated the Holy of Holies from the holy place as I have depicted here with this purple line. 
  2. In the Solomonic Temple, there is a veil and a wall. 


Now last time I said that I didn't find a reference to a veil. That's because when I did my word search, I only did a word search within Kings. I didn't check Chronicles. In Chronicles there is an extremely brief reference to the veil.


II Chronicles 3:14 says:


NKJ 2 Chronicles 3:14 And he


That is Solomon.


made the veil


It uses the technical word for poreketh, which is the veil between the holy place and the Holy of Holies.


of blue, purple, crimson, and fine linen, and wove cherubim into it.


That's all it says. It doesn't say where it hung in relation to the wall. But it's very clear that there was a wall there, and either the wall and the veil were right next to each other or there was a difference between them. Some have suggested that maybe the altar of incense was between the two. I don't know. 


Now that brings me to current events. This is a National Geographic, fine conservative fashion of scholarship. But they have a good article in here. The cover article is on the real King Herod, architect of the Holy Land. They have a fabulous picture on the cover of Masada. I have not had time to read it. I just happen to be walking through the new HEB the other day and as I was walking out the door it caught my eye and I grabbed it and brought it home. But I haven't had time to look at the article at all. However, the one thing I do like…  I love maps. They have a map inside that is really good. We need to get another copy of this just so we can get the map to use in prep school because on one side you have a map with all the contemporary countries in the Middle East: Egypt here, the Sinai, Saudi Arabia, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Turkey. That's great to give you a good understanding of where things are. I've always loved maps and like to read maps and I realize there are some people who are challenged when they read maps. It's really a good thing to have to orient geographically. 


But on the other side they have this chart called Jerusalem's Holy Ground, which is a great graphic. What they have down here in this square is the look of the Temple Mount in the post-Moslem period.  So you have the centerpiece here as the Dome of the Rock. Out here you have the Al-Aksa Mosque. They have a cutaway here to see down the area which the Crusaders used for a temple. There were arches that were used down there to support the Temple platform as Herod rebuilt it.  They were used by the Crusaders to stable their horses. So they mistakenly called it Solomon's Stables. It has been excavated in recent years illegally by the Moslems, by the Waqf. They've built an underground mosque down there now. 


Here you have the palaces that the Umayyad dynasty built there during the early Muslim period. Evidence of that is pretty much gone now. But then there's a cutaway over here of the Dome of the Rock and what it looks like inside and where the foundation stone is—which is where they believe the Ark of the Covenant was—the foundation stone where they believe is where Abraham sacrificed Isaac. So there is a good cutaway there. 


Then just above it, there is a picture of the temple platform for the Second Temple Period and what that looks like with a cutaway over here of what the Second Temple looked like, the Herodian Temple. Then above that you have a platform depiction here of what the Temple Mount looked like during the Solomonic period. Out here they have a picture of their reconstruction of the Solomonic Temple. 


Now there's no archeological evidence of the Solomonic Temple. But if you look at this, they have a solid wall between the holy place and the Holy of Holies. Now one of my points here was that the function of the altar of incense on the Day of Atonement was that the smoke from the altar of incense would fill the inner room. Now the only way that could do that would be open up the door and put a fan in there to blow the smoke in. Or if the door is closed, then you have a problem getting enough smoke in there to cover the Ark of the Covenant. But they do depict simply the wall. They don't have a wall and a veil, so that's a mistake which they missed on.


So other differences. In the Solomonic Temple they had ten menorah and ten tables of showbread whereas in the Tabernacle there was only one. In Herod's Temple there was one only one. But Solomon had 10 tables of showbread and 10 menorah. The Solomonic Temple is much, much larger. All of the furniture: externally the bronze altar is enormous compared to the Tabernacle bronze altar, as is the laver for ritual washing. Remember it's set on the backs of 12 oxen. There is this enormous swimming pool almost that sat out in the courtyard. 


Another difference that we see here in our text in verse 4 states that in the Ark of the Covenant "in the Ark of the Covenant" – verse 4 says:


NKJ Hebrews 9:4 which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant;


That's the tablets of the Ten Commandments. However when you get into the description of the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Kings 7 and 8, all that's mentioned is the Ten Commandments. There is no longer a mention of the manna or Aaron's rod that budded. They're not inside the Ark anymore. They somehow got misplaced I guess. I don't know. Nobody knows what happened to them. They are not mentioned again. 


So in the Solomonic Temple you have an Ark that's absent Aaron's rod and absent the manna. But that was there in the Tabernacle period. Of course the major difference with the Second Temple from the early ones because there is no Ark of the Covenant. 


So there are clearly distinctions. I think people don't pay enough attention to the fact that there were slight variations that occurred down through history.  So having brought all of that out, I suggested that the way to handle some of the situations in the Old Testament is to look at the perspective that we have in Old Testament passages. 


So if we use this as a backdrop, then I'm going to just reference a couple of passages that we have in Exodus. For example in Exodus 26:33-35 it mentions the table of showbread and the menorah as being outside the veil. If you look at those passages, verses 34 and 35 say:


NKJ Exodus 26:34 "You shall put the mercy seat upon the ark of the Testimony in the Most Holy.


NKJ Exodus 26:35 "You shall set the table outside the veil, and the lampstand across from the table on the side of the tabernacle toward the south; and you shall put the table on the north side.


Now using the chart up there as our orientation, if you're standing in the holy place or outside the Tabernacle proper itself, it wouldn't make sense to say, "Set the table outside the veil", especially when you look at the way the description flows in Exodus. The description for the construction of the Tabernacle begins in chapter 26. It begins with the Ark of the Covenant. It doesn't begin as we did in our study with the outer courtyard and the outer wall hangings. It starts from the middle and works itself out because the orientation is always from God's perspective, not from man's perspective in the description of the Tabernacle. 


So if you're inside the Holy of Holies and God says, "You shall set the table outside the veil and the lampstand opposite the table." Then it makes sense.  The reason that is important is because when you come down later to Exodus 30:6 it says:


NKJ Exodus 30:6 "And you shall put it


The background picture here is the altar in the holy place.


before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you.


Because there is a separation from chapter 26 to chapter 30, you forget what the perspective is. So when you read this in isolation from 26, it is easy to say, "Well, this where the altar of incense would go." But if you maintain your perspective, which you have all the way through this section of being inside the Holy of Holies, then when the text says, "You shall put this altar in front of the veil that is near the Ark of the Testimony in front of the mercy seat." That uses a preposition in the Hebrew, which means what is in front of, what is before, what is in the presence of. So it indicates near proximity that the golden altar was in the face of or right in front of the Ark of the Covenant. 


Now you run into a couple of other problems with this in Leviticus 16. I went back and looked at a lot of this stuff and what you find in almost every discussion of Leviticus 16 – I read through several commentaries looking to see how they handled this. (You might as well turn to Leviticus 16 with me because we'll be there when we finish this section on the Tabernacle) When we look at verse 14, it describes the fact that after the High Priest goes in after he has put incense on the fire and the clouds fill the room. In verse 14 we read:


NKJ Leviticus 16:14 "He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; and before the mercy seat


…which is that same preposition which means "in front of." So we see the same idea of its immediacy...right in front of the mercy seat.


he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.


NKJ Leviticus 16:15 " Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering,.


Now what does he have to do to do that? He has to go back outside. This is verse 15.


which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil,


So now he's back inside the holy place. So the perspective again is from inside the holy place.


do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat


NKJ Leviticus 16:16 "So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness.


Then we skip down to about verse 18. 


NKJ Leviticus 16:18 "And he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around.


Now he has gone inside the veil. Now he goes outside the veil to the altar that is before the Lord.


Everybody I read, to a man, identifies this altar as the altar of incense. But as I pointed out last time, 81 times you have the word mizbeach for altar in Leviticus. And 79 of them clearly refer to the bronze altar. The reference to the mizbeach in Luke 4 with the sin offering calls it the altar of fragrant incense.  It is very clear that that's talking about the altar of incense. You have 3 other uses of the word altar in Leviticus 16, one prior to verse 18 and I think two after it. They each refer to the bronze altar. So the only conclusion you can arrive at is the altar in verse 18 has to be the bronze altar, unless there is someway that there is some clear indication that he's talking about the altar of incense. Everywhere else in the context, it's the bronze altar. Whenever he is going to talk about the other altar he changes the terminology. 


The reason people get confused is in Exodus 30 it clearly states that on the Day of Atonement the priest is supposed to put blood on the horns of the altar of incense as well. 


But remember that he goes outside. So it makes better sense to think that when he's inside he's putting blood on the Ark of the Covenant. He also does it on the altar of incense; it's just not mentioned here. Then he goes out and he puts it on the bronze altar, which was typical with a sin offering and with the burnt offering. That's what the bull and the goat were. They were the sin offering and the burnt offering. So that takes us back to understanding some things just about what's happening on the Day of Atonement. 


Last time I went through all the details point by point trying to summarize all of the details that were involved in that. That's what I want to talk about next. 


But before we get there I left out one thing. In 1 Kings 6:22 in reference to the Solomon's Temple there is a statement that the altar of incense is in the Holy of Holies. It doesn't use the exact same preposition; it uses a shortened form of the preposition that's used in Exodus. But what's interesting was is I was reading through probably 15 or 20 different commentaries on Hebrews outlining the different arguments and reading what everybody had to say, everybody who referenced it seemed to indicate that the altar was viewed as being in the Holy of Holies; but it was because of function. That's the third argument.


Let's backup so I don't get you all confused. We dealt with the second view which is the altar is actually a censer based on the word used. The third view has to do with the fact that this is just talking about the function of the altar in Hebrews 9, that because it is so closely associated with the Ark of the Covenant and because the smoke from the altar of incense would fill the Holy of Holies that therefore the writer of Hebrews is talking about it being behind the veil functionally. But as I pointed out (#1) we are not talking about function until we get to verse 6 in Hebrews 9. It just seems to be somewhat lacking in real strength. 


As I read through these commentaries and these various arguments, one of the things that appears is that those who are arguing for that position (arguing against the second position) all go to 2 Kings 6:22 to say, "See in the description of the Solomonic Temple the altar of incense is spoken of as being in the Holy of Holies also because of association." 


See this is a great example of the power of a presupposition. We talked about presuppositions before and said you know something is so deeply ingrained an assumption about life that it controls our interpretation of something despite certain evidence. We've heard something over and over and over again and it is a deeply ingrained assumption about reality that shapes how we interpret and understand things going on around us. So at times in the Christian life we have to take out our presuppositions and challenge them because it's often at the presuppositional level that we were holding certain ideas that are contrary to Scripture. So what we see here is people who have it so ingrained in them that the altar of incense is out the Holy of Holies that they come to a passage like 1 Kings 6:22 which indicates that the altar of incense is in the Holy of Holies and they'll say, "See, it is spoken Holy of Holies there too because of the function." They don't even think. 


In fact I only know of about two commentaries that I ran into that take the position that I do that the altar is inside the Holy of Holies. No one else even discusses that as the fourth option. It doesn't even occur to them. They've seen the charts. They've heard what Josephus and Philo and others say about the first century Temple that the altar of incense is out in the holy place. That is such a controlling reality that when they go back and they read these other things, they don't even stop and think about those prepositions and the perspective and where is the writer standing or any of those things until all of a sudden, "Wait a minute! Maybe there is something different there." It just shocks us because it's been so ingrained in us that it looks the other way. It's not this way. It's this way in the Tabernacle, not in the Second Temple period. I hope having gone through it again that everybody has got that at least somewhat figured out.


A key issue that we run when we get into Hebrews is that the focal point here is on the Day of Atonement.


Verse 6 states:


NKJ Hebrews 9:6 Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services.


NKJ Hebrews 9:7 But into the second part


That is into that second Tabernacle.


the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people's sins committed in ignorance;


Notice he recognizes that none of the ritual (as I pointed out last time) in the Mosaic Law dealt with sins of what is called literally sins of the high hand or intentional sins. Those intentional sins were covered through direct confession of sin to God as David exemplifies in Psalm 51. All the ritual covers are the sins that are committed in ignorance, the sins that aren't willful sins and the sins related to ritual uncleanness. 


Now let's look at this whole thing about the Day of Atonement. Going through Hebrews 9, we're going to come to appreciate what happens on the cross in ways that we never have before because of the way the writer of Hebrews goes back to the Day of Atonement to start unpacking all of the details there so that we understand things a little better. 


The first thing that we have to understand is: what in the world does this word atonement mean? What does it mean? I've touched on this in the past to some degree. Each time I go back I have to shake my head. I read more articles and get other contradictory or different information. I've come to some slightly newer, maybe less fuzzy conclusions. 


Most of us were taught that the basic meaning of kaphar (kpr – those are the three consonants in the Hebrew) had to do with covering in a literal sense. So that worked well. We have the Ark of the Covenant and inside you have the Law and the manna and Aaron's rod that budded. So blood is put on the mercy seat. Actually when we look at it there is only one dab of blood on top of the mercy seat. The other 7 go on the floor in front of it. So I think it is sort of misrepresented—the idea that this blood is smeared over the top of the mercy seat and literally covering what's underneath there. That's not quite the idea although it's mixed in there. That's where it gets kind of fun. 


The English word though that translates kaphar is a word that is made up in English from the compound phrase at-one-ment—atonement. That's where we get the word atonement.  They scrunched those three words together and we have a new English word, atonement. But what does atonement mean? Now I challenge you if you want to have some fun and frustration, go to your English dictionary. Check the Oxford English Dictionary; check Webster's. I think it's 12th or 13th edition now. Check Collins and any other of the English dictionaries and you get this daisy chain run around that atonement means to reconcile or to expiate. Well what does expiate mean? It means to atone. Alright, the concept of at-one-ment really pictures reconciliation: that people are coming together and becoming one. So you look up reconciliation and that means to atone. So see what happens is we define one word with another word; then when we go to that word it directs us back to the first word. We're not getting any real definitions. We're only running around the dictionary and deepening our confusion and increasing the density of the fog. 


So what does this word really mean? Now if we investigate some things like the Hebrew lexicons that we have, there is just as much of a fog. There is the recognition that there's one form of kpr that's used in Genesis 6 in reference to covering the ark Noah with pitch. So that idea is there and that is a qal stem. Then we have the words that are used in Exodus many times. Mostly the word atonement which is used a little over 100 times in the Old Testament, used in ritual context or priestly context and it has various ideas. In the Septuagint it's translated in many cases by the word katharizo, which means to cleanse or to purify. Cleansing has the idea of wiping something away. 


Now just to give us a little more confusion, one popular version based on the English text is done my Spiro Zodhiates who is a native Greek speaker. He defines kaphar this way.


It is a verb meaning to cover, to forgive, (Notice that. Pay attention to this; it's interesting) to expiate, and to reconcile. 


Now we've all seen the fact that in the New Testament reconciliation, expiation, forgiveness are all distinct concepts. All of them are distinct doctrines and distinct facets to the work of Christ on the cross. So he says this word kaphar means all of them. Hmm…that's interesting. He goes on to write:


This word write that this word is of supreme theological importance in the Old Testament as it is central to an Old Testament understanding of the remission of sin. 


What is the remission of sin? What does remission mean? It means canceling sin. When you cancel a debt, what's that called? Forgiveness. Well, we're getting into some interesting territory here. Forgiveness is also referred to as cleansing.  I John 1:9. Well that fits; that goes together. 


It goes on to say:


At its most basic level the word conveys covering but not in the sense of merely concealing. 


Now there's an important nuance because when we talk about atonement covering sin we have that visual of blood covering the sin. It almost conveys that idea of a cover-up. I don't mean that in a negative sense; but that's sort of the idea of a cover-up. The word for mercy seat in the Greek comes from the Hebrew word kapporeth, but the word that's used in the Greek is hilasterion, which is the word that is translated propitiation. Oh, now we have another idea here. We've got reconciliation, forgiveness, expiation and some dictionaries will even talk about redemption. So we've got redemption, expiation, reconciliation, forgiveness. All of these different ideas all pop up in different definitions of atonement.


So Zodhiates goes on to say:


It is therefore employed to signify the cancellation or writing over of a contract.


What an interesting concept! That's the idea of what we see in Colossians 2. We're not going to get there tonight, but I want to go there because it's really interesting how it ties together. Colossians 2:12-14 talks about the fact that on the cross God nailed to the cross the debt of certificate against us, canceling it. The death of Christ cancelled that. That is referred to in the context of Colossians 2:12-14 as forgiveness – positional forgiveness. That's what happens at the cross. There is a positional forgiveness that occurs and a genuine canceling of the debt of sin. Christ paid the penalty in full at the cross for everybody. It's just very, very clear there. We're going to have to go in there and investigate that just a little bit to understand this. 


So Zodhiates says:


…to signify the cancellation or writing over of a contract in Isaiah 28:18 the appeasing of anger.


Now I don't like the word appeasing that much. Maybe it has a legal idea, but that's really how propitiation is described – appeasing or satisfying the judicial demands of God. So when we look at this idea of covering, it has an idea of canceling as it looks man-ward; but as it looks god-ward, what is it doing? It is canceling or it is covering up His demands. It is resolving His righteous and holy demands. That's the idea of satisfaction: that His justice is satisfied. 


Now the root idea of the word as it appears in the qal stem, which doesn't have to do with the ritual. Hebrew has different stems and each of these does something to the word so the qal is the basic root stem. Then you have the piel which intensifies the meaning so it picks up a different level of meaning.  The hiphil is causative. The hithpael is reflexive. These ideas come up. The root idea in the qal means to cover, to paint or to smear something. But in the piel stem (which is the stem we're dealing with); it means to atone, appease, to make amends and the participial form kopher means to ransom. There's your redemption idea.


The cognate in Acadian means to wipe something off or to cleanse it. However in the Arabic, the Arabic cognate means to cover or conceal something.  That's where the debate is today among scholars. Does the Hebrew word have more in common with the Acadian idea of wiping away and ritual cleansing or does it have more to do with the Arabic word that has the idea of a covering? A lot of scholars are moving more to the Acadian. The Arabic is attested mostly in post-Islamic writings, which are fairly modern, and we're dealing with a word that goes back at least 2,000 years prior to the Islamic period. So there is sort of the state of the debate as we have it today.


Now in summary what I think is that God chose this word because it is a multifaceted word. It incorporates all these different dimensions and facets of how God solves the sin problem. So we can't just capture it in one word. That makes it a great word for describing in a complete sense what Christ does on the cross. In terms of the mercy seat function, we're talking about propitiation and Christ solving the problem of God's character. In the idea of the blood being applied, the blood relates to the price that's paid. The substitutionary atonement; this brings in the redemption idea. The covering idea brings in the idea of cleansing and forgiveness which is then emphasized on the Day of Atonement. 


Remember, on the Day of Atonement you have about three major things that happen.


  1. The first major thing is a sin offering first and a burnt offering. Why is it in that order? It's in that order because Aaron has to solve his sin problem (confession of sin) and then recognize his commitment to God with a burnt offering before he can even go into the Holy of Holies. That's the same thing we practice all the time – you have to confess your sins before you can worship or live your spiritual life or move forward or anything of that nature.
  2. The second thing that happens is the whole ritual involved with the mercy seat and putting the blood on the mercy seat and the horns of the altar. 
  3. Then the third thing that happens is the thing with the scapegoat. Now nothing on the Day of Atonement is related to experiential living – experiential spiritual life. It has to do with the annual payment of the debt of sin by the nation. It's not that the blood of bulls and goats can't do anything. It can only do it for a year. And it has to be renewed every year So what happens at the end is he comes out and he has two goats. On one he puts his hands, recites the sins of the nation and then kills the goat. The other goat is then taken out into the wilderness. It's not taken down the street or across the valley or over the next hill. It is taken by a trusted assistant, the text says. Why? Because, if you get some lazy person with no work ethic, as soon as they get around the corner and nobody can see them anymore they're going to let that goat go. And, what's that goat going to do? He's going to come right back. But the whole point of this is to show that sins are completely totally removed and will never be brought up again. So that goat is taken out into the wilderness where it is let go and never finds its way back because the sins are completely and totally paid for by Christ and they're not the issue. That's not talking about experiential forgiveness although that's true there. 


It is talking about the reality of the fact that Christ cancelled the debt on the cross. Period!  For everybody! For every believer, unbeliever;  the debt was paid for. The penalty was paid for – period. But that doesn't get people saved. It just means that the debt of sin is paid for. But they are still spiritually dead. They are still lacking righteousness. They're still in a state of condemnation until they trust in Christ as their Savior. So we have all of these different aspects and facets of the work of Christ on the cross: all of them exhibited in this one word that is just loaded. This is what is depicted on Day of Atonement every single year. It pictures that once, for all complete payment of sin by Christ on the cross, which is exactly the point that the writer of Hebrews is going to make in the rest of Hebrews 9. 


We'll start getting into that a little more next week.